Anti-whalers halt Japanese hunt over ‘hostages’

The anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd scored a victory on Wednesday in its high-seas campaign to obstruct a Japanese whale hunt in the Antarctic, forcing the fleet to a standstill while officials tried to unload two protesters who had boarded a harpoon vessel from their rubber boat.

Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said the Japanese were poachers targeting vulnerable whale stocks and that the two activists were ”hostages”.

He demanded their immediate release — though no Sea Shepherd vessel had been sent to retrieve them — and said his organisation would continue to trail Tokyo’s fleet.

”We will chase them until they stop their hunt,” Watson said by satellite telephone from the bridge of the group’s ship Steve Irwin. ”As long as we are chasing them, they aren’t killing whales.”

Japan condemned the incident, accusing Sea Shepherd of piracy and of twisting the facts.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tomohiko Taniguchi said Tokyo had tried repeatedly to contact Sea Shepherd to arrange a hand-over, but the activists weren’t responding and their boat appeared to be speeding away from the area.

He said a Japanese whaling boat was chasing the Steve Irwin in an attempt to return the protesters. He refused to disclose the ships’ exact locations, citing security concerns.

”These people aren’t hostages — they’re unwanted guests,” Taniguchi said. ”We want them off our ship immediately, but they’re not giving us the chance.”

Japanese Fisheries Agency official Takahide Naruko said the fleet would not resume its planned hunt of about 1 000 whales until the activists were handed over — saying there was ”no telling what Sea Shepherd would do” if the fleet started hunting with the activists on board.

The two activists — Australian Benjamin Potts (28) and Briton Giles Lane (35) — jumped from a rubber boat on to the deck of the Yushin Maru 2 in the icy waters off Antarctica on Tuesday after a tense high-speed chase.

Sea Shepherd protesters earlier attacked the Japanese ship with bottles of acid and tried to entangle the ship’s propellers, Japanese officials and Watson said.

Watson said the two activists were not involved in throwing the pungent acid, and intended only to board the ship to deliver a protest letter. They were detained aboard the harpoon ship and briefly tied up. He alleged the Japanese crew assaulted the activists, a claim Tokyo denied.

”This can be seen as nothing more than an act of piracy by the Sea Shepherd group,” said Glenn Inwood, a spokesperson for Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research, which organises the hunt. He accused Sea Shepherd of stalling to get publicity.

Whaling programme

Japan sent ships to Antarctica in November to kill minke and fin whales under a research programme that avoids an international moratorium on commercial whaling.

The ban allows limited hunts for scientific research, a loophole Japan has used to kill nearly 10 000 whales in the past two decades, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Opponents say Japan’s programme is commercial whaling in disguise.

Japan’s top government spokesperson defended Tokyo’s catch. ”The activists are obstructing what are legal activities in international waters, and in an extremely dangerous way,” Nobutaka Machimura said. ”Japan strongly condemns these actions.”

Japanese officials have said they want to arrange a rendezvous and Sea Shepherd must agree not to attack its ship in the process. Watson has refused to comply, demanding an ”unconditional” release.

”When people hold hostages and make demands, that’s the behaviour of a terrorist organisation,” he said. ”I’m not going to acquiesce to their demands.”

Tokyo is also contemplating handing the two activists to a third party, such as the Australian government, fisheries officials said. An Australian government ship, the Ocean Viking, was in southern waters, although neither side has announced a hand-over deal.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called for caution on both sides. ”We’re dealing with the great distance of the Southern Ocean. The capacity for adverse incidents is high, and the capacity for rescue or assistance is low,” he said.

Meanwhile, the whaling fleet’s mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, has been chased 700km from the stand-off scene by a boat belonging to the environmental group Greenpeace, according to Japanese officials.

Despite the disruptions, Tokyo has no intention of calling off the hunt, Taniguchi said. ”It’s clear the situation is very grave,” he said. ”But I can tell you, Japan has no plans to quit.” — Sapa-AP

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